Sunday 7 June 2015

University of Virginia 'Pap. Virginia 1'

David Whitesell, curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at University of Virginia has a blog post (June 5, 2015) about the "Problematic Provenance" of a new acquisition by Virginia University of their "first papyrus manuscript " and its recent ownership history. He admits an "error of judgement" . It was bought on
March 19, 2015 public auction (lot 71) of Swann Galleries, a major New York auction house. The lot description offered no provenance information, nor (as is common in the auction trade) was the consignor identified.
When the acquisition was questioned, Whitesell says:
I have since done what I should have done initially, prior to bidding, and that is to contact the auction gallery for all documentation the gallery and the consignor may have on the papyrus’s ownership over the last several decades. Swann Galleries has confirmed that the label bears its “internal cataloguing number.” Swann has also requested documentation from the consignor, “a dealer with whom we have done business on a number of occasions,” and we are awaiting a response. So far my other efforts to trace this fragment to a known collection, to a previous auction or trade sale, or to other pieces have been fruitless.
He says that for the University "provenance is no small matter, for we want to avoid acquiring, whether through purchase or gift, collection items for which we do not have clear title". This suggests that for them its all about ownership, rather than the ethics of where items on the antiquities market came from. While people think like that there is no real prospect of rooting out the badness from this sorry trade. Fortunately the librarian goes on:
assuming proper export in the absence of contrary evidence is not sufficient, for ethically we would want assurance that U.Va. was not supporting, in even the smallest way, the illegal antiquities trade.
He then makes a "discovery":
The situation could have been avoided, of course, had I sought provenance information prior to bidding; if the document’s history could not be verified earlier than 1983, there would be no point in bidding. To my regret, I did not.
Because... what? Why did somebody making such a purchase not really know anything about the way he should be going about it to spend that money entrusted to the University by an endowment fund in a proper manner? Is the USA doing enough to educate its citizens about the illicit antiquities market, so little in fact that a member of staff of an illustrious University was totally unaware of the pitfalls of buying things on it?

UPDATE 9th June 2015
It turns out this papyrus was not bought from a dealer's shop, but through eBay "Papyrus manuscript fragment, in Greek, Lot 71" #201294269765  Item location: New York, New York, United States. And looky-here, evidence that the sole bidder (o***a) knew from the beginning it was a dodgy transaction, they left no feedback, probably to hide their tracks.

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